I went to the last Indiana University women’s basketball game this season on Sunday (against Penn State, who lost). It was cool. But the thing that stuck in my mind was the singing of the national anthem. I didn’t grow up in the U.S.; it was the words to “O Canada” that my teachers mimeo’d in smudgy, purple, delicious-smelling type. (The mimeo smell . . . . oooooohhh . . .) I’ve been in the United States for 20 years now, and I’ve stood for the Star-Spangled Banner I don’t know how many times. And on Sunday I was once again standing for the national anthem, and the jumbotron thingy in the center of the court is reading out the words, and we got to the end
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
And I realized, there’s a question mark. Am I the last person to notice this? My relationship to The Star-Spangled Banner is purely oral — I’ve heard it and repeated it. But I’ve never read it, and then, after 20 years, I get a surprise: there’s a question mark at the end. This makes grammatical sense, if you stop to think about it, but you never do think about it. “Land of the free and the home of the brave” seems so affirmative, self-congratulatory even, and coming at the end of the tune’s triumphal ascent (the moment where jets fly overhead and fireworks go off and the crowd roars, etc.) we simply assume that hell yeah, you goddam well better believe that flag yet waves.
A moment to pause and reflect: if there’s one thing Americans have over Canadians, it’s the national anthem. The thing I always liked about the “Star-Spangled Banner” was its range, which spans a twelfth. Most people can only comfortably sing within an octave, so when you get to the part about the rocket’s red glare, you force your voice up into that dangerous range where it can crack or squeak or give out altogether. In singing your national anthem you take a risk, and I like that about it. I like a national anthem that makes you perform your own patriotism by demanding a moment of extremity and existential choice: will I go for it and risk vocal disaster, or will I mouth the words and submit meekly to the authority of the professional singer standing at center court? A good American knows the answer. In “The Star-Spangled Banner,” loud nasty out-of-tune
bawling can count as a good performance, because it represents risk freely chosen and struggle willingly undertaken. And this is awesome. As everyone knows, America’s national anthem was originally a drinking song (which might explain its excessive range). This is somehow very American. Canada’s national anthem is a paraphrase of the “March of the Priests” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which is somehow very Canadian. So are its modest vocal demands, circular repetitions, and vague promises to “stand on guard.”
On the other hand, the Canadian flag is definitely better than the American. If you haven’t already seen this chart evaluating the world’s flags, do check it out. Methodology is here. Some of the comments are hilarious. Zimbabwe: “features a hawk sitting on a toilet.” Mozambique: “Automatic weapons on a flag are especially bad. Appears to have been
designed by a committee all of whom had stupid ideas for pictures of extra things to put on the flag.” Northern Mariana Islands: “Appears to have been constructed from clip art.” Libya: “Did you even try?” While the United States flag doesn’t commit any serious aesthetic outrages, it lacks the iconic simplicity of the Canadian maple leaf. (Plus, if you look at the maple leaf a certain way, it looks like two crabby guys having an argument — an illustration, perhaps, of the endless quarrels between English and French Canada, though it would be hoping too much to suppose that this is intentional.)
I seem to have wandered somewhat from my main point. Ah, yes, the question mark. What it means is this: we never know if the star-spangled banner yet waves. It’s always an open question. America is not a permanent revolution, it’s a permanent experiment, but then, there’s no such thing as a permanent experiment. Experiments are, well, experimental: prone to messy, catastrophic failure. It’s in their nature to fail. How did we even get this far on an experiment? It’s a mystery. By rights, the American revolution should have ended with some demagogue seizing dictatorial power and using the apparatus of the state to kill his enemies and take their stuff. It’s what always happens after revolutions. And yet this didn’t happen here. At various points in this nation’s history there have been opportunities for Americans collectively to give in to the natural human desire to renounce the hell of infinite space that is freedom, to seek the comforting arms of a strongman who will choose their way for them and relieve them of the frightening burden of being free. And yet here we are.
I used to think that this experiment was destined for success. You can look back over all the years when America almost gave in, almost became not-America, but didn’t, and you might get cocky. But seven years of Bushism — not conservatism, but a kind of radicalism, a twisted mockery of conservatism fusing tribal hatreds with leader-worship — taught me that America is fragile. Two hundred-thirty-two years of American successes do not predict year number two hundred thirty three. It could all just go away tomorrow, and all it would take would be someone who can finally take our fear — that fear that our voice might give out when we come to the bit about the rockets and bombs, the perennial fear — and use it to convince us, once and for all, to say, that’s OK, someone else can do the singing, I’m done.